“A mistake is only a bad thing until it is fixed,” says chef Cal Peternell

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Cooking mistakes: Whether you’re a home cook or a Michelin-starred chef, we’ve made them all. In real life, sometimes you take salt instead of sugar. Or a teaspoon is exchanged for a tablespoon. What to do when the inevitable happens is perhaps one of the most important and least-talked about cooking.

“A mistake is only a bad thing until it’s fixed, in which case it becomes not only good, but magical,” says chef and author Cal Peternell. “Mistakes are the swept away stardust with which success shines.”

Peternell is about drawing inspiration from disappointment. Why throw in toast, for example, when you can mix it into a grind for meatballs, thicken a soup, or make a simple onion panade? Peternell’s new book, “Burnt Toast and Other Disasters: A Book of Heroic Hacks, Fabled Fixes, and Secret Sauces», Delves into the world of possibilities behind everyday culinary snafus. He joins host Evan Kleiman to discuss work and other kitchen disaster tips.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KCRW: You live in the Bay Area and have been the chief of In Panisse for twenty years. It is quite easy for people like us to access optimal ingredients. What is the circumstance that made you cook outside of your bubble like this?

Cal Peternell: “It was mostly from when I was traveling, visiting family or on vacation, and I didn’t have the incredible access that I usually have here. I was trying to do as usual, ‘I’m going to cook for everyone.’ And that means it starts at the market. And I’ll see what looks good. But I realized, well, and if nothing really looks this good then what do you do?

So I started trying to figure this out.

I also felt like it was a book about mistakes. And sometimes this is the mistake you made because maybe you burnt the toast or overcooked the rice. But sometimes the mistake was that the ground beef was sealed in a package a little too long. And it didn’t go badly, but it’s just not great anymore. Or maybe the only veg you could get were the same ones you always get, or maybe they were good veg, but it was like a week ago. And now you have them and you have to do something big.

Talk about this onion panade and the options for burnt toast.

“The panade is a dish that I have been preparing for many years. I learned from one of my former colleagues, Russell Moore, who now has a wonderful restaurant here in Berkeley called The Kebabery. The panade is almost like a lasagna that you make with bread instead of pasta. You kind of layer toast with tasty ingredients, then bake it and it all falls into place.

The one I have here is just a very simple version where you use … a little too burnt bread, or maybe you toasted it yesterday for something and now it’s still there and it’s a little stale. You can layer it with lots of onions you cooked and a little cheese, if you like, and some herbs, if you have any. I like to pour a really good chicken broth into it. You cook it and it’s only one of those things that’s better than the sum of its parts. And then I have another option where instead of just using a broth, you use some kind of mixture of custard, milk, and eggs.

Onion panade
For 6 persons

If you have homemade broth, make a panade. Onions, well cooked but not golden, thwart overly toasted bread.

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup olive or vegetable oil (or a combination of oil and butter), plus more for the baking dish
  • 3 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon of fine sea salt or kosher salt
  • Ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons of fresh thyme leaves or chopped sage leaves (optional)
  • 6 cups of good chicken broth
  • 12 to 16 ounces of very toasted bread (about the value of a loaf)
  • 4 ounces of cheese (Gruyère, Cheddar and / or Gouda), grated
  • 2 tablespoons of butter, cut into thin slices

Instructions

-Heat a large skillet over high heat and add the oil, then the onions and ½ teaspoon of salt. Stir until the onions begin to cook, then reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender and very lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Cover with a lid or add a little water if the onions brown too much before softening. Add black pepper and thyme or sage, if using, and cook for one more minute. Put aside.

-Heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

-Bring the broth to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat, add the remaining ½ teaspoon of salt and keep warm over low heat while you build the panade. Brush a 3-quart baking dish or saucepan or large cast-iron skillet with oil, then top with a layer of bread, breaking up slices if necessary to fill in any gaps. Arrange a third of the onions on the bread and sprinkle with a quarter of the cheese. Repeat until there are four layers of bread and three of the filling (set aside the last quarter of the cheese). Press down on the layers with your hands, then pour in enough hot broth to reach the top layer. Cover with foil and bake in the oven until heated through in the center, about 45 minutes.

-Remove foil, sprinkle with butter, sprinkle with remaining cheese and return to oven until bubbly and golden on top, 25 to 30 minutes. The breadcrumbs should be fairly moist under the top, almost soft crust. Add remaining hot broth if needed to make it so.

-Distribute into bowls and eat hot.

Of Burnt Toast and Other Disasters: A Book of Heroic Hacks, Fabled Fixes, and Secret Sauces by Cal Peternell. Copyright © 2021 by Cal Peternell. Reprinted with permission from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

What tips do you recommend for mushy rice?

” I have a few. One is that you can make rice pudding. I like this one where I mix ginger and coconut milk, and you can eat it hot or you can let it cool, which is my favorite. And then the other one that is really fun is the rice pancakes. You mix a little flour and a little baking soda, then I like to put a lot of turmeric because it gives it a nice color. And [you can do] other spices like cumin and paprika, green onions and eggs and then you fry them like you would pancakes, but they are tasty. … I usually have a jar of some sort of mango pickle or lime pickle in the back of my fridge that tastes good with these, and they are good as a side dish with meat, chicken or other vegetables. They are also good as a small appetizer. You can make them tiny and just put them in your mouth.

What are some ways to brighten up the blank canvas of a chicken breast?

“Yes, I don’t know when it happened that suddenly the chicken was often sold without the skin. But if you end up with the version that doesn’t have a skin … the thighs are a bit more forgiving because they are a bit fatter. But I cook them with a lot of Dijon mustard and a little bit of flour, and I kind of fry them and then braise them and it makes this nice thickened sauce that’s tangy because of the mustard.

Another one that I like… is that I take chipotles right out of the box and marinate the thighs with these and a little kumin and a little honey, then roast them. It’s kind of barbecue tasting and really delicious, excellent with lime squeezed on it.

One of the things that was such a fun challenge about this book is taking apart some of the dishes that I’ve always made and thought, what if you skip some steps? How would that work? And it often works quite well.

Talk about suggestions on what to do with completely non-elevated ingredients, like a box of mac and cheese.

“Yeah, I call it ‘hackaroni and cheese.’ The one my teenage son liked the most was the one that had corn, cilantro and lime, it was that pasta that we made in the cafe at Chez Panisse. Sure we were using hand cut noodles and had a nice fresh cream, but I was thinking, and if you just used a little less cheese stuff, and added corn and a little cream and a lot of lime, cilantro and green onions? This one is really great. And by the way, you can take that leftover packet of cheese if you haven’t used it all up, and sprinkling it over some popcorn works great.

You can take inspiration from the deception in Chef Cal Peternell’s latest book, “Burnt Toast and Other Disasters”. Photo courtesy of HarperCollins.


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